Houston Restaurant Weeks, the five-week-long fundraiser that brings in money for the Houston Food Bank — a whopping $9.6 milllion since its debut in 2003 — was interrupted by Harvey, one of the worst natural disasters ever to affect Houston and Texas and the United States. So organizers decided to extend the discounted dining for another full month, running from September 5 through September 30.
Restaurants were invited to opt into the extension (or not), and many have. The Houston Restaurant Weeks dining deal allows guests to order a set-price prix fixe meal at $20, $22, $35 or $45 for brunch, lunch or dinner, with either $3 or $7 of that cost going straight to the Houston Food Bank.
In essence, the extension could be a great way for restaurants — which make up one of Houston's largest industries, employing close to 350,000 people, according to the Houston Restaurant Association — to make up lost income from having to close for days or weeks because of Harvey. In a press release, HRW founder Cleverley Stone said, "Restaurants desperately need business to stay afloat, and many employees whose livelihood depends on tips have not had any income in a week. This revenue shortfall has impacted thousands of people in food service, and we’re hopeful an extension of Houston Restaurant Weeks will provide a timely boost to restaurants, their employees and the industry as a whole.”
However, some servers and front-of-house staff at these restaurants appear to be quite alarmed at the thought of facing another month of potentially lower earnings. As one restaurant owner pointed out last week, in the wake of Harvey, many industry workers who survive paycheck to paycheck are really hurting.
At least one server had already contacted the Houston Press, writing that she could not pay bills because of Houston Restaurant Weeks back in early August, way before Harvey entered the picture:
Those who have the least often give the most, but sometimes it isn't voluntarily. Houston Restaurant Weeks is starving me, over working me and making me unable to pay my monthly bills. How? I get paid $2.13 an hour. My employer barely pays a portion of my taxes with that slave labor. Instead I make my pay through tips. Normally this is a non issue, I'm great at my job, and tend to average about $25-35 an hour. I would love a change in the pay structure but that's an argument left for another time. Making my "regular wage" is next to impossible during restaurant weeks, now that it encompasses a whole month and then some. The dinners are often inexperienced and looking for a deal (I have yet to meet some who cares about the donations to the food bank). Most rarely tip properly and demand the same level of service as a normal tab ($250-$400+ ). So when my pay is cut into less than a third, I have to work ten times as hard, and have to suffer through dozens of guest who are deeming, I get upset. Red in the face upset. The "charitable event" is great for the restaurant owners because their food cost stay relatively the same, more sales for the month, and they get to seem altruistic. In reality, the money is taken away from the pockets of every tipped employee in the restaurant. Now I can't afford to pay my mortgage, car payment, utilities, etc. I have to make choices like "do I want to keep a roof over my head or have a full belly?" Am I not already broke enough as it is? Who would stand for their pay being half of what it normally is for a whole month in any other line of work? Houston restaurant weeks says it's for helping those in need. How about you help the working class service industry and reduce it back to ONE week? Because at this rate, I'll be using the food bank to feed myself while everyone is enjoying cheap meals and a fuzzy heart for helping the disenfranchised.
At the time, the Press couldn't find other servers who also agreed with her (or were willing to go on record to talk about it, at least) to run a story. But this isn't the first time the HRW weeks tipping debate has come up. Back in 2014, it prompted a Houston CultureMap article that reported how servers loved the event despite "working just as hard — if not harder because they want to impress new guests and hopefully lure them back — for that meal as they would if it were at the regular, higher price" and even though "they are likely to get a smaller tip because of the reduced Restaurant Weeks price." The article encouraged people to tip on the pre-discounted price of the meal, which would require customers to research and estimate how much a pre-discounted meal at the restaurant would cost. That seems a little far-fetched for most diners who are used to tipping on the cost they're presented.
Thus the debate? Are servers making less and working harder? Or are they making the same amount and working harder? In some cases, it sounds as if it depends on the restaurant. Finer-dining servers would obviously be affected harder.
From a restaurateur's standpoint, Thomas Nguyen, who runs Peli Peli and occasionally contributes to the Press, says that the discount and potential lower tips are made up for in the sheer volume of people who turn out for the dining deals. Nguyen noted that he trains staff to handle the volume and believes that if servers were truly taking such a deep pay cut, they'd have to be working for restaurants with tables that each spend $400 a pop. Some finer-dining restaurants may fall into that category, steakhouses especially, but for the most part, the majority of restaurants wouldn't. As for people being horrible tippers, he says, "If I came in and ordered HRW, I'm probably not going to scheist the server on the tip." Not everybody thinks that way, though.
The same server reached out to the Press on September 3, following the announcement that HRW would be extended for another four-week period. The server included the following Facebook thread in which another industry worker claims that many hospitality employees will not be able to pay their bills during this difficult time.
In the Facebook thread, Houston Restaurant Weeks founder Cleverley Stone immediately steps in to comment, noting that having a negative impact on restaurant workers is not HRW's intention. Melissa Stevens, a representative for HRW, sent the Press this statement:
Typically HRW keeps and many times causes restaurants to hire more staff with more volume than other periods. The restaurant industry has embraced this event and the reason it's been extends is due to demand - and positive impact. HRW is being extended to Sept 30 as way to spur traffic to restaurants - as obviously business is slowed. The restaurant industry is our 3rd largest employer - and everyone is aware of the impact of Harvey on this and all the industries it touches We all hope that the extension of HRW will help employees and provide us all reason to Dine Out and Do Good for many.
Obviously, this is a touchy topic for many in the Houston restaurant industry right now, especially at a time of crisis. It's important for restaurants to get business right now, but it's also important that their staff can make a living.
Here is the Facebook thread:
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